Pannel Davis returned to football practice in August from a summer of climbing rocks and hiking the Wyoming wilderness in far better physical shape than he came into South Boston’s training camp a year earlier.
But more important than the fact that the junior wide receiver could make it through conditioning drills called gassers without, well ... being totally gassed, was that his summer in Wyoming got his mind into the best condition of his life.
“Toward the end of the program we’d go off by ourselves and stay there two or three hours and reflect on what happened on the trip,” Davis, who went backpacking in Wyoming’s backcountry as part of a 12-week program for at-risk youth called Summer
Search, said just after the first practice of the season last month.
“That’s when I realized everything.”
Beyond sending inner-city high school students on experimental trips around the world, Summer Search also provides mentoring for the students with the goal of giving them the life skills they need to succeed in college.
The program has been eye-opening for the 16-year-old. Davis never stayed in one place long growing up as his mother moved him and his siblings back and forth from the Northeast and the South several times during his childhood. They were even displaced once by a hurricane in Florida when Davis was 8 years old.
Davis said the last couple years he has spent too much time “partying” and “slacking off” and was even suspended from school for having a knife on him.
But removed from the city and all his problems this summer, Davis got a chance to reflect on his life in a way he had never done before. Among other things, Davis, who now lives with his father in Dorchester, said he realized he was taking his mother for granted and not visiting her enough.
“I appreciate her more [now],” he said. “I thought about coming back, getting a job and staying focused on football.”
And while the Knights (0-3) are off to a rough start this season, Davis is more equipped to handle the bumps in the road than ever before. That’s because he literally had to deal with a lot more than just bumps in the road on Wyoming’s most rugged stretch of the Rocky Mountains.
“It was crazy the first couple weeks,” said Davis, who has eight receptions for 185 yards this season, including one touchdown, as well as six carries for 50 yards. “I was going crazy. I’d never been out in the woods. I’d never been out in nature.”
A social worker at South Boston High recommended Davis for the program, which he knew about because two former South Boston players, Andres Mejia and Joseph Francois participated in the program. Francois, Southie’s former team captain who is now at the University of Rhode Island, did the Wyoming trip two summers ago.
“He did the same program and came back chiseled,” Southie coach Sean Guthrie said. “That did a lot for his game. He was cut big time so hopefully we’ll get some of the same results [with Davis].”
And while most coaches would want keep their players under their thumbs and in football camps and in weight rooms all summer, Guthrie is glad to let his players gain new experiences in Summer Search, especially when they are getting a workout at the same time.
“I think sports are going back to the origins of training, where it’s multifunctional,” Guthrie said. “People are throwing tires around and swinging sledge hammers, getting back to that full body basic workout, things people did on farms to get their bodies naturally strong and I think there’s a certain strength missed in the weight room than when you use your whole body.
“Basically [in the weight room] you’re trying to simulate real work. I think stuff like mountain climbing is awesome. How else could I hit muscles in the shoulders and legs and back all at the same time? I think it’s awesome, Summer Search.”
Davis did more bouldering (shorter climbs without ropes) and hiking up mountains than hardcore Sylvester Stallone-style cliffhanging on the Wind River Mountain Range. But that in no way discounts the physical and emotional toll of trekking across the trail that stretches more than 100 miles and has 35 named peaks more than 13,000 feet high, include Wyoming’s highest, Gannett Peak (13,804 feet).
Seven of the largest glaciers in the Rocky Mountains are also located in the Wind River Range.
Davis said it was so cold on the first day of the trip when they set out for a four-mile hike at 5 a.m. that they had to wear four layers and do pushups to stay warm. The 57-pound backpack he had to haul up the side of mountains for seven to eight hours a day was also a gut check.
“I definitely took it lightly when it was explained to me. I thought I was athletic. I felt like I was good,” Davis said. “But times got really hard out there. I was thinking about things I never would think about, it really showed who I was out there.”
Davis learned how to read a map, pitch a tent and cook on a campfire.
“I cooked pizza, we cooked macaroni, that was a frequent dish,” he said.
And since the 6-foot, 170-pounder was bigger than most of the other 11 students on his trip, he often had to help carry the load for others.
The hikes increase to more than nine miles at a stretch but quitting was not an option.
“I’d break down and say ‘I want to give up’ but you would always think ‘I can’t quit’ because if you quit it’s called an ‘evacuation’ and you’d have to hike back all the way back to where you started. That’s what you have to think about, ‘Damn, I don’t want to hike it all the way back’ so you have to push it through.”
Returning to Boston was almost as hard as hiking the trails.
Beyond sheer exhaustion, (he slept his entire first day back), Davis said it was difficult for friends and family to understand how his trip changed him and why he all of a sudden wants to try so hard to do the right things in life.
“It was crazy, I had to get a lot of things straight with my family,” he said. “When I came back everything felt so weird. The first three days I didn’t even know what to do; I just came back and chilled in the house for like three days straight.”
Stepping back onto the football field was the most comforting foothold that made Davis feel like he was back on solid ground and in familiar terrain.
“It really is a new beginning, especially with football,” Davis said. “Last year I was kind of slacking a little bit and I’d just do what I needed to get by. I feel like now, since everyone is looking at me as a captain and a leader and someone whose supposed to step up to the plate, I feel like I will step up to the plate
“I feel like I just want to do everything times two now. I want to have double the touchdowns, double the yards. I feel like I’m ready for everything. I think this is going to be a real fun season for me, like it’s my time to shine.”
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